Speaking of other things my Comedy
cares not to sing, we thus from bridge to bridge
moved on, and, when upon the summit, stopped,
in order to behold the next ravine
of Malebņlgė, and the next vain cries;
and I beheld it wonderfully dark.
And just such sticky pitch as that which boils
in the Venetians' Arsenal in winter,
for calking up again the unsound ships,
which cannot then be sailed; - instead of which,
as one a new one builds, one plugs the ribs
of that which many voyages has made;
one hammers at the stern, and at the prow another;
one fashions oars, another cordage twists,
while still another mends a jib or mainsail; -
such was the coarse, dense pitch, which, not by fire,
but by an art divine, boiled there below,
and limed the bank on every side. I saw
the pitch, but nothing in it, save the bubbles
the boiling raised, and that the whole of it
kept swelling up, and settling back compressed.
While I was gazing fixedly down yonder,
my Leader cried to me: "Beware, beware!"
and drew me to himself from where I was.
I then turned round, as one who longs to see
the thing which it behooves him to escape,
and who, when by a sudden fear unmanned,
although he sees, delays not his departure;
and I perceived behind us a black devil
come running up along the rocky crag.
Ah, how ferocious in his looks he was,
and in his actions how severe he seemed,
with wings outspread, and light upon his feet!
His shoulder, which was sharp and high, was loaded
with both a sinner's haunches, whom he held
clutched tightly by the sinews of his feet.
"O Malebranche," from our bridge he cried,
"here 's one of Santa Zita's Ancients! Put him
beneath, for I 'm for more of them returning
to that town which I have well stocked therewith;
there, save Bonturo, every one 's a grafter;
a 'No' for money there becomes a 'Yes.'"
He hurled him down, and o'er the rugged crag
returned; and never was a mastif loosed
with so much hurry to pursue a thief.
The other sank, and then rose doubled up;
those fiends, though, who were sheltered by the bridge,
cried: "Here the Holy Face availeth not!
One here swims otherwise than in the Serchio!
If, therefore, thou dost not desire our hooks,
protrude not from the surface of the pitch."
They pricked him then with o'er a hundred prongs,
and said: "Here under cover must thou dance,
that, if thou canst, thou mayst thieve secretly."
Not otherwise do cooks have scullions plunge
the meat with hooks into the cauldron's midst,
to hinder it from floating on its surface.
Thereat my kindly Teacher said to me:
"That here thy presence be not known, crouch down
behind a rock, which may avail to screen thee;
and be not thou afraid, for any harm
that may be done to me, who know these things,
for I in frays like this have been before."
He then passed on beyond the bridge's head,
and when the sixth embankment had been reached,
he had to show assurance in his face.
With just the storm and fury wherewith dogs
break out and rush upon a poor old man,
who stops and begs at once from where he is;
from 'neath the little bridge those devils issued,
and turned against him all their grappling hooks;
but he cried out: "Be none of you malicious!
Before your grappling hooks take hold of me,
let one of you advance, and hear me speak;
then take ye counsel as to grappling me."
Then all cried out: "Let Malacoda go!"
Thereat one started, while the rest kept still,
and, as he came, said: "What does this avail him?"
"Dost thou think, Malacoda," said my Teacher,
"that, as thou seest, I have hither come,
safe until now from all your hindrances,
unhelped by Will Divine and favoring fate?
Let us go on, for it is willed in Heaven
that I should show another this wild road."
Thereat his pride received so great a fall,
that at his feet he dropped his grappling hook,
and to the rest said: "Let him not be wounded."
My Leader thereupon cried out to me:
"Thou that among the bridge's broken rocks
art crouching, safely now regain my side."
I therefore moved, and quickly came to him;
then all the fiends advanced so far, I feared
they would not keep their word. Even thus I once
saw infantry, who, under pledge of safety,
were from Caprona coming forth, afraid,
when 'mong so many foes they saw themselves.
Then wholly to my Leader's side I drew,
nor from their faces, which did not look good,
did I remove my eyes. For as their prongs
they lowered, one fiend to another said:
"Wouldst thou that I should touch him on his rump?"
and they replied: "Yes, see thou nick it for him!"
But that fiend, who was with my Leader talking,
turned round at once, and said to him: "Keep still,
keep still there, Scarmiglionė!" Then to us:
"Further advance along this present crag
can not be made, because the sixth arch yonder
lies wholly shattered on the ground below;
but if it please you still to go ahead,
go on along this ridge; there is near by
another crag which furnishes a path.
Than this hour five hours later yesterday,
twelve hundred, six and sixty years had passed,
since here the path was broken. I am sending
some of my company in that direction,
to see if any yonder air themselves;
go on with them, for they will not be bad."
"Step forward, Alichino, and Calcabrina,"
he then began to say, "thou, too, Cagnazzo;
and let old Barbariccia guide the ten.
Have Libicocco go, and Draghignazzo;
tusked Ciriatto, too, and Graffiacane,
with Farfarello and crazy Rubicante.
Search round about the boiling birdlime pitch;
let these be safe as far as that next crag,
which all unbroken goes across the dens."
"Oh, Teacher, what is this I see?" said I.
"If thou know how, pray let us go alone,
for I request no escort for myself.
If thou as wary art as thou art wont,
dost thou not notice how they gnash their teeth,
and with their eyebrows threaten us with woe?"
And he to me: "I would not have thee frightened;
let them grin on, then, as they like, for that
they 're doing at the wretches who are boiled."
They wheeled, and moved along the left bank then;
but not till each, as signal toward their leader,
had first thrust out his tongue between his teeth,
and he had of his rump a trumpet made.
1. Though the name Commedia was in Dante's time that given to serious poetic compositions that ended well, and so befits Dante's supreme poem, which ends happily in Paradise, the nature of this and of the following canto is such that Comedy in the modern sense would perfectly apply to them. Corruption in politics, and the endless struggle between corrupt representatives of the people and often equally corrupt executives of the laws passed against that corruption, have always been fair game for more or less good natured amusement, cartooning, etc. True to his nature as a great artist, Dante in dealing with the subject at once descends in incident and language to the natural level of the comedy of the perennial political tragedy, so that any criticism from the point [[xlix]] of view of taste can be met by the answer that everything in these cantos is as organically fitting as is anything in the other ninety-eight.
6. The first note struck; the world of grafters and corrupt politicians is a dark world, wherein they "lie low."
7. Venice was in Dante's time, as it had been long before, and was to be long after, the great naval power of the world.
8. Pitch, the other characteristic of the relation sustained to each other and to their entangling profession by grafters who can only ply their nefarious trade at the expense of good government by playing into each other's corrupt hands; grafting is dark and sticky business.
19. A wonderful picture of the temporary excitement made by public suspicions of corruption and graft in the underworld, and the almost immediate subsiding of the public interest momentarily aroused.
29. The nearest modern equivalent of this black devil and his mates would seem to be something approaching a blend of the more or less permanently effective newspapers and police.
37. Evil-claws; Santa Zita being the patroness of the city of Lucca in Tuscany, the reference here is to its town council.
40. Bonturo Dati, ironically made an exception to the wholesale charge against Lucca, had the reputation of being in 1300 its boss, and the worst grafter of them all.
42. Ita, the Latin for "yes" used on the judicial occasions where these magistrates and lawyers testified or voted, for financial considerations, contrary to their sworn duty.
46. "Doubled up" in a position such as that assumed by those worshipping the Holy Face, an ancient image of Christ believed to have been by the hand of Nicodemus, which was preserved in Lucca.
49. A stream near Lucca, a popular bathing resort for its inhabitants.
53. An attitude all too frequently assumed towards such people by a conniving police or press.
62. A reference to Virgil's previous descent through Hell, or to his historical experience with the corrupt politics of Rome and Italy in his time.
76. Evil Tail.
82. Two ways of viewing the same cause.
84. The promise of Reason's ultimate success in leading Man into a resultful knowledge of the world of political evil.
95. A Tuscan town which surrendered to the Lucchese, and to the Florentines with whom Dante was serving, in 1289, when a young man of twenty-four.
106-114. Three statements by the devil, the first and last of which were true, while the middle one was false; the third, moreover, being a beguiling truth of religious import. The next crag-bridge was down, but so were all [[l]] of them in the sixth trench, so that the second statement was untrue; 1266 years from 1300 took one back to the year 34, that of Christ's death, when the earthquake accompanying it shattered the outer Gate of Hell, the high bank separating the sixth from the seventh Circles, and the bridges across the Sixth Trench, that of the Hypocrites. This would seem to be the devils' formula for telling a successful lie: sandwich it between two truths.
118. These comic devils all of them have more or less significant names, some seeming to have resulted from grotesquing those of well known Italian families, which may have been tainted with this sin of graft.
125. Since there was no crag that "all unbroken" crossed the dens, or trenches, this ominous order was the same as telling the devils to do with the two investigating poets as they pleased.
137. The last three lines of this canto find their due explanation in the note to line 1, and at any rate are boldly endorsed by the four opening terzine of the next canto. Dante's contempt for corruption in politics was too great, and too well justified, for him to shrink from giving it the most apposite expression that occurred to him.